The Lomo LC-A should be nothing more than historical curio, something that crops up in the collections of the most die-hard Soviet camera collectors. Like more than a few Soviet camera designs, the LC-A was a Soviet redesign of a Western camera – in this case Cosina’s CX-1 and CX-2, pocket-sized Japanese compact 35mm cameras with a superb lens.
The designers at Lomo (Leningradskoye Optiko-Mekhanicheskoye Obyedinenie) in Leningrad (now St Petersburg) first clapped eyes on the Cosina – history is split over whether it was a CX-1 or a CX-2 – in the early 1980s. The Lomo top brass were impressed with the little Japanese camera, which boasted a sharp, contrasty lens that resulted in rich, saturated colours, heightened by vignetting around the corners. By 1984, Lomo’s engineers had managed to build a ‘tribute’, a faithful yet simplified version. They called it the Lomo Kompakt Automat – or, as it would be known in the West in the decades to come, the LC-A.
Lomo began producing 1,100 a month of these cameras from June 1984. Unlike the ubiquitous Zenit SLRs, a favourite of many budget-minded amateur photographers in Western Europe, the LC-A was intended for domestic consumption. In fact, some 5,000 LC-As were especially stamped to commemorate the 27th Communist Party Congress in Moscow in 1986 (the first presided over by reform-minded party chairman Mikhail Gorbachev).
With the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, this strange little camera – which had built up many a fan in Soviet-aligned countries – became a secret no longer. And when a bunch of Austrian art students – the group who would later form Lomography in Vienna – found an LC-A in a Prague junk shop that year, they catapulted the LC-A to global fame.
As the LC-A celebrates its 33rd birthday, Kosmo Foto is profiling the family of cameras inspired by Lomo’s humble LC-A.
First produced in 1984, the LC-A was almost unknown outside the USSR and other Communist states until the end of the Cold War. A cruder copy of Cosina’s CX-1 and CX-2, the LC-A shared many of the cult Cosina’s features (its biggest change was getting rid of the moving lens cover of the Cosina in favour of a simpler slider). It was a zone focus viewfinder camera, with four focus zones to choose from (0.8m, 1.5m, 3m and infinity) and an automatic setting (via a lever on the front left of the camera) that chose both shutter speed and aperture.
The LC-A’s 32/2.8 Minitar lens had an aperture range of f2.8 to 16, and its shutter speeds went from 1/500 to two seconds; more than enough to capture a shot in all but the most difficult lighting. Should photographers want a little more control, they could choose an aperture manually – but they would be restricted to a single shutter speed of 1/60. In reality, most snappers simply stuck the LC-A on ‘A’ and fired away.
The LC-A’s ability to keep the shutter open long enough in low light was one of its secret weapons. LC-A fans soon learn that shooting it handheld (the LC-A came with a tripod socket but no hole for a cable release in the shutter button) meant light sources would often become abstract trails. These were heightened by the lens’s tendency to boost contrast and vignetting, which could be further boosted by shooting cross-processed slides – Agfa’s original CT100 Precisa and Kodak’s Elite Chrome 100 soon became the standard for LC-A fans.
The LC-A further aligned itself as a night-time camera thanks to its qualities when used with a flash – the LC-A uses rear-curtain flash, rendering the background of a scene before the flash illuminates the front.
Original LC-As – sporting the name in Cyrillic letters and a tiny CCCP badge on the back – used the Soviet film rating system, GOST, which is close to but not exactly aligned to the West’s ASA/ISO rating (GOST 65 is roughly equivalent to 100 ISO). The highest GOST setting is 250, the equivalent to around 400 ISO.
There, were, however, various export models of the LC-A that used the Western alphabet and Western ISO settings aswell. Some of these were exported as the “Zenith Lomo”, perhaps to trade in on the Zenit brand name that was so well known in the UK.
Soviet-era LC-As still crop up reasonably often on eBay – and should you head east of Berlin on your travels, they’re still fairly common in cameras stores and flea markets. The major cause of failure is damage to the electronics – if these are on the blink, an LC-A is little more than a paperweight, as without batteries or a functioning exposure system, the camera’s shutter won’t open properly. Thankfully, the LC-A runs on three buttoncell LR44/SR44 batteries, which are cheap and plentiful.
I have two Soviet-era LC-As, one from 1986 and the other from 1988. The first has soldiered on almost without issue since I bought it in 2000; only now does it need to go into the repair shop, and only to mend the frame counter, which has been resolutely stuck on zero for some years. My 1988 model sports a tiny badge of the Tsarist warship Aurora – a central character in the failed 1905 Bolshevik Revolution – that has obviously been pasted on in the hope of making it look like a limited-edition model.
In 1986, Lomo released an upgraded version of the LC-A, the LK-M. This sported a range of improvements, notably a more reliable shutter, a threaded cable release socket in the shutter button, and a revamped ISO selector that goes up to 800 – making the camera much more usable in low light. It’s also a more eye-catching model, with the name and lens info arranged around the lens in eye-catching yellow and red.
So far, so good. This revamped LC-A was made in very limited quantities – only around 1,000 or so – and they are very hard to locate today. But the LK-M would live on, many years later, as the inspiration for another Lomo camera.
Lomo LC-A (new)
Lomography, the company set up by the Austrians who first championed the LC-A’s quirky qualities, did more than just smuggle as many Lomos as they could find out of the former Eastern bloc.
The demand was so high that they knew the only solution was to try and restart production from the old factory in St Petersburg – which they then did with the help of the city’s then-deputy mayor, Vladimir Putin.
Lomography’s revived LC-As are essentially the export versions, proudly made in the same factory which had churned out the originals in the 1980s. They sport exactly the same features – zone focus lever, aperture setting, lens cover, ASA setting – as found on the originals. The big difference? A cartoonish figure painted on the viewfinder cover when the camera is in the off position.
Lomography released a range of special editions, including one inspired by Egyptian hieroglyphic art – in order to keep sales ticking along.
The new-look LC-A was an enormous success, turning a Soviet curio into a must-have for experimental photographers, many of whom were encouraged by the much-hyped ’10 Rules of Lomography’ the company built to further this little camera’s mystique. Production lasted 10 years, until the Lomo factory could no longer keep on top of rising costs.
In 2006, production moved from St Petersburg to China. Lomography took the opportunity to upgrade the humble LC-A. What they did is essentially recreate the LK-M 20 years later.
Gone is the aperture selector from the front left of the camera. The LC-A+ could only be shot in auto mode, though for most Lomographers this wouldn’t be a problem. The camera’s metering range was extended – you could now choose film speeds up to 1600, much better for shooting in challenging light if you wanted to freeze the action. And for those who wanted to use really long exposure times, a cable release thread was added to the shutter button. And it also had the ability to take multiple exposures at the flick of a switch.
The LC-A+ was a hugely popular upgrade, produced in all sorts of different special editions – from anniversary models to one for Russia Day and one against nuclear weapons.
The LC-A+ is made from lighter plastic which also makes it feel less robust than the original (though the LC-A+ is much better built than the Holga/Diana cameras which have joined the Lomography stable).
I had a Lomo LC-A+ for a few years, and shot around 20 rolls with it (I ended up swapping it for a Kiev 60 my friend in Helsinki had). It never completely replaced my original LC-A, but I did find it useful for shooting in situations where the LC-A’s maximum ISO wasn’t quite up to it.
In 2011, Lomography revamped the LC-A yet again. Out went the 32mm lens, to be replaced with a 17mm f4.5 lens, one which can pack a lot more of the world onto the frame.
Like the LC-A+, the LC-Wide is auto-only operation, but it cuts the number of focus zones from four down to just two – .04 to 0.9m and .09m to infinity. And that’s not all – the LC-Wide also introduced the ability to switch format. Like the LC-A, the LC-Wide also allows you to take double exposure at the flick or a switch.
Using plastic masks that could be inserted between the shutter and the film, the LC-Wide can shoot half-frame or square format (like a cut down version of a 6×6 shot from a medium format camera). If half-format is chosen, the camera can be set onto half-frame setting on the bottom of the camera. This, essentially, gives you three Lomo cameras in one – which is the kind of maths you might be doing considering the LC-Wide is not exactly cheap’ around £325 compared to £75 for a working LC-A these days. (You can switch between formats on the same roll but you obviously can’t change the masks – so if you do chop and change you’ll have less defined borders between shots on anything other than full-frame mode)
The LC-Wide (like the LC-A+, made in China) is more than just an LC-A with a slightly wider lens, however. The shorter minimum distance focus means that you no longer have to have a pro basketballer’s arms to get your face in focus if you want to take a selfie (very important in these days of Instagram). It also means that you can, in the true street photography style, go much closer to the action.
I got a Lomo LC-Wide in 2012 (very kindly donated by Lomography UK) and took it on several trips. It’s a fun and versatile camera; should you need one on top of a standard LC-A is a question only you and your bank account can answer. But it’s a great camera to bring on holiday – match it with contrasty, saturated films like Lomography’s own CN100, or some cross-processed slide, and you’ll be impressed.
The lens’s maximum wide aperture of 4.5 is a step down from the LC-A+, but the film sensitivity range goes up to 1600 – allowing you to push process or use faster films.
Lomo LC-A 120
In 2014, Lomography announced the ultimate LC-A upgrade – a medium format camera. Looking like an LC-A on growth hormones, the LC-A 120 is a chunky but light plastic viewfinder camera bringing the LC-A’s automatic exposure and characteristic vignette to a totally different format.
The LC-A 120 sports a 38/4.5 Minigon lens roughly equivalent to a 21mm lens on a 35mm camera, putting it halfway between an LC-A and an LC-Wide. The front of the camera moves down for shooting mode and up to turn the camera off and protect the viewfinder and lens from dust and scratches.
The LC-A 120 uses standard 120 film – still made by the likes of Kodak, Ilford, Foma and Rollei – and is relatively simple to load, the film fitting into film holders on the bottom left and right of the camera. Just like the LC-A, it has four distance settings, with the closest being 0.6m (two feet). That makes the LC-A 120 really good for street photography, allowing you to get very close to your subject. Like the rest of the LC-A family, the shutter is quiet – being a viewfinder camera, there’s no SLR mirror to cause a loud slap.
The camera’s shutter button is threaded for a cable release, and there’s a switch for shooting multiple exposures. The shutter goes as fast as 1/500, and there’s no limit on how long your exposures can be.
Lomography got some justified criticism for its lightweight Bel-Air medium format folding camera, which had issues around keeping the film flat (no pressure plate), and its’ Diana F and Lubitel 166+ were revamped version of existing cameras. The LC-A 120 is a different beast – a logical reimagining of their classic design for a new format.
And it’s a fantastic camera. Though lightweight it is reasonably robust, and the lens has all the moody saturation and vignetting that brought the LC-A so much attention. No, it isn’t going to rival a Rolleiflex or a late-model Mamiya or Fuji, but it’s much sharper and crisper than the toy camera 120 cameras Lomography is known for. I’ve taen the LC-A 120 on trips to the south of France, Seville, Istanbul, New Zealand and Sri Lanka, and been consistently impressed with the results.